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Tolerance fuels social experiment


Virtue and vice can be notoriously hard to distinguish, but in few other spots of the world do they lie cheek by jowl as outside the Crypt of Peter and Paul in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district.

To find this small ecumenical ministry for hard-core drug users, one passes a coffee shop where a sign politely reminds patrons to smoke their pot and hash indoors. Turning down a narrow cobblestone lane, two choices present themselves. Veer left, and you can hear the word of God sung, proclaimed and discussed; veer right, and you can choose from among several scantily clad women in storefront windows promising a “super sex massage.” An emblem of a naked woman slithering down a banana marks the spot.

For the record, there is indeed a bank of red lights on the edifice. Also for the record, this reporter was accompanied by his wife and steered left.

It is a curious alchemy of the saintly and the seedy, here where tolerance is king.

Sins of the flesh are for sale in Holland in sometimes remarkably Wal-Mart-like fashion. Outside Amsterdam is a drive-through brothel where clients can pull up, make a selection from among the working girls (or boys), park in a stall with corrugated metal dividers, seal the deal, and then toss their condoms in specially provided waste bins, all without leaving the front seat.

Prostitution is not the only vice with which the Dutch have made a separate peace. Drugs are also legal here in some forms, and even where they’re not legal, they’re often allowed.

The ideal of tolerance extends to questions that elsewhere are the object of wrenching debate. Holland recently became the first nation in the world to recognize full marriage rights for homosexuals. In summer 2001 the country adopted a law decriminalizing euthanasia.

The Netherlands is thus a social laboratory for the West, a place where traditional taboos are shattered and new solutions given a day in court.

Like most Dutch, the people at the Crypt, both the ministers and the users, insist that Holland is no more decadent than other nations, just less hypocritical. Addicts shoot up, prostitutes turn tricks, gays fall in love, and sick people seek an end to their suffering no matter what, they argue, and hence the behavior might as well be out in the open where it can be discussed and regulated.

The Dutch (who never seem to tire of praising the wisdom of Dutch ways) add that despite the easy availability of drugs, sex and a merciful death, fewer people here die of overdoses, contract sexually transmitted diseases, or kill themselves to end suffering. Freedom, they argue, does not have to mean chaos.

“People think we dope our kids and smother our old people,” said former prostitute Kristy Dem Bruka, now a spokesperson for an Amsterdam prostitutes’ union. “Actually we behave ourselves better than most.”

A further, and no doubt related, feature of the cultural landscape is the weakness of institutional Christianity in Holland. In May, Cardinal Adrianus Simonis accused the government of seeing citizens only when it looks at the society, not churches. In response, agnostic Prime Minister Wim Kok invited Simonis in for a cup of coffee, politely listened to his concerns and promptly returned to business as usual.

Some Dutch Catholics are valiantly struggling to resuscitate the social and political might of the church. Others, however, regard its collapse as perhaps the best thing that could have happened to authentic Christianity, which is supposed to be more about the gospel than the government anyway.

NCR spent a week in late August moving up and down Holland, trying to discern if this is where the rest of us are heading, looking for the lessons the Dutch have to teach.


For Gen-Xers, Amsterdam’s reputation as a pharmacological paradise was cemented by the Quentin Tarantino film “Pulp Fiction.” In an opening scene, a pony-tailed John Travolta, playing mob hitman and heroin connoisseur Vincent Vega, explains the liberal drug policy to fellow thug Samuel L. Jackson. He concludes with the exclamation: “I know, baby, you’d dig it the most!”

Given this kind of PR, Amsterdam draws an annual flood of curious youth definitely not in town to check out the Rembrandts. During the summer, there are so many hippie wannabes in the central train station it looks like a casting call for “Hair.”

Yet Holland is really not a hallucinogenic Wild West, and many of these would-be Bohemians go home disappointed at how tame the scene actually is.

While it is possible to purchase and consume so-called “soft drugs” such as marijuana and hashish, “hard drugs” such as heroin, cocaine, LSD and amphetamines are forbidden.

Even the availability of soft drugs is carefully circumscribed. Specially licensed coffee shops can sell no more than five grams of marijuana or hashish in any one transaction, may not advertise the service, may not create a “nuisance,” and may not sell to minors. Mayors can, and do, order coffee shops closed that violate these provisions; the number of coffee shops has gone down 11 percent in the last 18 months.

The Dutch offer a full range of support services for drug users, including injection clinics and needle exchange programs. Holland spends far more per-capita on drug education and health care for drug users than other developed nations.

Most recently, the Netherlands has decided to experiment with a trial program of administering heroin legally to addicts three times a day in an attempt to stabilize, if not eventually end, its use. It’s another instance of what the Dutch see as a pragmatic acceptance of the way things are.

The consequences?

Despite easy availability, marijuana prevalence among 12 to 18 year olds in Holland is only 13.6 percent -- well below the 38 percent use-rate for American high school seniors. While the rate of marijuana use has inched up, this increase has not been accompanied by a rise in the use of hard drugs. For the last decade, the rate of cocaine use among Dutch youth has remained stable, with about .3 percent of 12-18-year-olds reporting having used it in the past month.

In 1995, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 2.4 drug-related deaths per million inhabitants in the Netherlands, compared to 9.5 in France, 20 in Germany, and 27.1 in Spain. Moreover, Dutch drug users are the least likely in Europe to get AIDS. Continent-wide, 39.2 percent of AIDS victims are intravenous drug users, while in the Netherlands the number is 10.5 percent.

Nor has the drugs policy created a more violent society. The murder rate in the Netherlands is 1.8 per hundred thousand, less than one-fourth the U.S. rate and among the lowest in the European Union. With 15 million people, the Netherlands has fewer homicides each year than Houston.

One can stroll the most drug-infested streets of Amsterdam, and find them quiet and even charming. There is none of the visible decay, none of the tangible fear, associated with core areas of the drug trade in American inner cities.

Certainly the Dutch have their critics. When former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey visited the country in July 1998, he called the policy “an unmitigated disaster.” (Actually he made the statement before touching down in Holland, leading some to wonder about the point of the trip).

McCaffrey said that Holland has become one of the world’s leading import/export centers for the trade in so-called “designer drugs,” such as Ecstasy. The Netherlands is “putting American children at risk,” McCaffrey charged.

Dutch observers say it’s true that the use of Ecstasy is climbing among more affluent youth, as it is in countries with more restrictive policies, and they are seeking to combat the trend.

The Dutch are not innocent of the dark side of drugs. Few people see the destructive consequences more clearly than Greta Huis, a Dutch Reformed pastor who runs the Crypt of Peter and Paul.

A friendly, keenly intelligent young woman who studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Huis spends much of her time arranging funerals of drug users and prostitutes who die of AIDS. She uses her cell phone exclusively for taking funeral calls.

What does she think of the drugs policy?

“Basically, it works,” she said. “Hardly any new Dutch people start taking drugs. We have a good education program in the schools. Our problems come mainly from backpacking tourists.”

Most of the hardcore users with whom she works would take drugs regardless of the law, Huis said. At least with Holland’s policy they do not have to be treated as criminals.

NCR sat down with some of the users who visit the Crypt. They insist that the ready availability of drugs does not mean that Dutch problems are worse.

“It may look like it’s more, but it’s because it’s out in the open,” James, 42, said. “Forbidding it wouldn’t make it go away.”

Salesian Fr. Harrie Kanters, a veteran of pastoral work with users, said he believes the attempt to deal head-on with drugs has been vindicated.

“I was in The Hague in the 1960s,” Kanters told NCR. “We learned from the ’60s that we have to be more open about drug use. We talk about it in schools, in church. Today, I wouldn’t meet the same young people I found in the streets 30 years ago.

“The harm is less today, fewer young people are dying,” he said. “That’s a success.”


Despite the quip that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, it can still be a bit startling to learn that in Holland prostitutes have their own union: the Red Thread, with spacious waterfront headquarters in the heart of Amsterdam.

This labor-management approach to sex may seem awfully commodified to romantics -- it’s actually called the “sex industry” -- but it’s part of the Dutch effort to treat prostitution as a legal trade, with workers who pay taxes and managers whose facilities are subject to government oversight. (Regulations actually specify such particulars as the temperature of the water in which prostitutes must wash their underwear).

Amsterdam features a downtown “Prostitution Information Center,” where potential clients can sample literature, ask questions and pick up a list of recommended places of business. It was founded in 1994 by prostitute Mariska Majoor, who says she got started at 16 in order to earn enough money to buy a German shepherd. She had the money after one day, but kept working for five years.

Prostitution has been legal in Holland in one way or another since the 19th century. Operating brothels was officially illegal until September 2000, but the practice was widely tolerated.

Dem Bruka, spokesperson for the Red Thread, summed up the underlying philosophy to the Dutch approach this way: “Sex can be a very special thing between two people who are deeply in love. But it can also just be another form of relaxation, and it’s perfectly OK to make a commercial transaction out of that.”

This is essentially the position taken by the Ministry of Justice. An official told NCR that only “nonconsensual sex” is a criminal problem.

Sex-on-demand does not seem to have made the Dutch more prone to the wages of sin. Rates of infection with sexually transmitted diseases are comparable to the rest of Europe.

Moreover, legalized prostitution has not led to the breakdown of the family. In the Netherlands, 2.25 people per thousand every year get divorced, above the European average of 1.8 but well behind pacesetters such as Britain at 2.7.

Nor do the Dutch seem to have adopted the attitude of “it’s legal, therefore it’s OK.” Prostitution remains personally repugnant to many. Each year the Red Thread complains about banks that make it difficult for prostitutes to open accounts, insurance agencies that don’t want to write policies, and landlords who refuse to rent apartments.

The main consequence of legalization, according to Dem Bruka, is that prostitution is safer for the sex workers. Conditions are cleaner, there is less violence, and prostitutes who find themselves in danger are more likely to summon police since they will not be arrested.

The spirit of live-and-let-live has critics. Ed Arons, editor of the Katholiek Nieuwsblad, the only Catholic newspaper in Holland, says that pragmatism has suffocated conversation on what it means to be a “wholesome society.”

“As long as our wallets are fat, why bother with democracy?” Arons said, summarizing what he sees as a typical Dutch view. “Our leaders have no vision at all. They are simply managing the process of consensus. If that’s life, it’s a pretty poor life.”

Arons said he detects the beginnings of a shift in the national psychology, a new self-doubt about whether tolerance has gone too far. He said he sees this reflected in the prostitution issue, where public talk is more about enforcement and less about “emancipation.”

Dem Bruka acknowledged that opposition to legalization comes largely from religious groups.

She paused, then said with a grin that when she was a prostitute, several ministers were among her regulars. “Prostitutes always say their best clients are from the religious community,” she laughed.

Actually, prostitutes themselves can be surprisingly religious. Huis said she knew one who refused to turn tricks on Fridays because Jesus was crucified that day.

“She would always pray for a good client,” Huis said. “Sometimes you get the most amazing theology here.”

Gay marriage

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, April 1, four civil marriages were celebrated in Amsterdam’s City Hall. From one point of view, there was nothing special about the couples; one had been together for 36 years, another had a 9-month-old son.

“We are so ordinary, if you saw us on the street you’d just walk right past us,” said one bride-to-be.

Yet the Vatican obviously felt something extraordinary was underway. It denounced what happened that Saturday night as a “grave danger.”

The reason: the eight newlyweds were homosexuals. Six men and two women married each other in a ceremony conducted by Amsterdam’s mayor, Job Cohen, who had helped draft his country’s new gay marriage law.

“In the Netherlands, we have gained the insight that an institution as important as marriage should be open to everyone,” Cohen said.

In Holland, homosexuals now have marriage rights equivalent to those enjoyed by heterosexuals. The only difference is that gay couples may not adopt children from abroad, out of deference to the sensitivities of other nations.

Laws governing matrimony, divorce and adoption have dropped all references to gender, and even the dictionary has been amended to eliminate references to “man and woman” in the definition of marriage.

Again, what are the consequences?

Gay emancipation has not worsened the AIDS crisis. The number of AIDS cases per 1,000 people in Holland is 0.28, slightly above Germany at 0.20, but below France at 0.75 and well below the United States at 2.33.

Reports suggest that the incidence of homophobia and hate crimes in the Netherlands is among the lowest in the world. Anti-gay speech is vigorously policed. When Rotterdam’s Imam Khalil el-Moumni recently called homosexuality “a sickness that could destroy society,” the Dutch Prime Minister termed the language “intolerable.” The imam was summoned by a government minister who explained the norms of civil discourse.

Yet as with drugs and prostitution, Holland’s tolerance does not necessarily signal approval. Several gays said the fact that the Netherlands has the world’s most progressive law on homosexuality does not mean it has the world’s most progressive culture.

“There’s a difference between tolerance and acceptance,” said André Wesche, a member of a group of gay Catholic pastors. “I may be tolerant, but I may not want my child to be gay.”

Wesche said that despite 30 years of an emancipation movement and overwhelming public support for the marriage law, gays here can still run into problems looking for jobs or trying to get loans.

Compared to the situation elsewhere, however, homosexuals in Holland say they are basically content.

“There is less of a ghetto culture here than in the United States,” said Frans Bossink, also a member of the gay pastors group. “We don’t cluster in the same neighborhoods or belong to all-gay institutions. We’re more integrated.”

Now that the struggle for marriage rights is over, what happens to the emancipation movement?

Some activists have shifted from fighting civil rights battles to raising funds to build gay retirement homes. As the pioneers gray, apparently, so do their crusades.


Technically speaking, euthanasia is still illegal in Holland, but a law adopted over the summer establishes criteria under which doctors will not be prosecuted for ending a life at the patient’s request.

Those criteria are:

  • A request for euthanasia must be voluntary, well considered and repeated over a period of time;
  • Suffering must be unbearable, with no prospect for improvement;
  • The doctor must have informed the patient of his or her situation and further prognosis;
  • The doctor and patient must have discussed the situation and reached the conclusion that there is no other reasonable solution;
  • The doctor must consult with one other physician, with no connection to the case, who performs an independent analysis and states in writing that the doctor has satisfied the due care criteria.

Dutch doctors are supposed to report instances of euthanasia to regional committees of their peers. It used to be up to a district attorney to decide whether to prosecute doctors; now, under the new law, if the regional committee decides the doctor acted in accord with the guidelines, the prosecutor’s office does not get involved.

The new law is, in short, a typical example of the Dutch “legalize but regulate the hell out of it” approach.

Supporters say the law brings out into the open a practice that happens all the time in other countries, where it is hypocritically hidden from view. The consequence, they believe, is that euthanasia will actually become less common in Holland, because patients will not hide their intentions or act out of panic.

Critics, however, don’t buy it. Nellie Stienstra, a conservative Catholic activist based in Utrecht, said that she believes the seemingly rigid criteria will inevitably be relaxed.

“When we introduced abortion, it was supposed to be very difficult to get, only in extreme cases such as rape and incest,” Stienstra told NCR. “Now women get abortions if they’re heading off for vacations and don’t want to be inconvenienced.

“Euthanasia,” she said, “will go the same way.”

(For the record, World Health Organization figures indicate that the abortion rate in Holland is one of the lowest in the world. In 1996, the United States had 1,365,700 induced abortions -- 22.9 for every 1,000 women between 15 and 44. In Holland, the rate was 6.5).

So far, tolerance for euthanasia does not seem to have produced an explosion of cases. Studies show that in 1990, euthanasia accounted for 1.8 percent of all deaths in Holland. In 1995, the number was 2.3 percent.

Walburg De Jong of the Netherlands Union for Voluntary Euthanasia believes the small rise is not due to an increase in euthanasia deaths, but to the fact that more physicians are reporting euthanasia as the fear of prosecution recedes.

Pastoral experience seems to back up that conclusion.

Myriam Steemers van Winkoop, a former adviser to the Dutch bishops who now works as a director of pastoral services in a teaching hospital in Maastricht, told NCR that in six years in the job, dozens of patients have at different times talked about euthanasia. Only three eventually went through with it.

“In every case we talked things out. I tried to understand what this person was really expressing,” she said. “Usually it’s just loneliness, or fear. We explain what we can do for them, and nine times out of 10 that solves the problem.”

Steemers said that the Netherlands has a corps of 5,000 volunteers who help terminally ill patients in their homes. In her hospital, Steemers said, 10 volunteers work with each terminally ill patient.

It’s not a point that convinces Stienstra, who believes that euthanasia is far more common than official statistics indicate.

“I know deacons who work with elderly people who say the pressure not to be a burden, to simply give up, is enormous,” she said. “Dutch culture, which used to be very warm, has gotten cold.”

The church

Catholics number a little over 5 million of the country’s 15 million people. The dominant religious tradition has historically been a Calvinist strain of Protestantism. Officially speaking, the Catholic church, along with the more conservative Protestant groups, has opposed all of the recent social innovations.

In keeping with the oft-stated premise of John Paul II, the Dutch bishops say that “drugs cannot be fought with drugs,” and hence legalization is misguided. As might be expected, the bishops have also opposed the legalization of brothels, the decriminalization of euthanasia, and the decision to afford full marriage rights to homosexuals.

For the most part, their opposition took the form of news releases. There were no marches on the capital, no fire and brimstone from the pulpit, no threats of excommunication, no prominent Dutch politicians disinvited from speaking on Catholic property.

The phrase most often invoked to characterize the episcopal response is “no fireworks.”

Moreover, Catholics here say that while official policy is clear, at its base pastoral work marches to the beat of its own drum. Steemers says that many priests are willing to administer last rites to patients who intend to be euthanized, despite an official ban. A study of Dutch priests by the University of Utrecht, in cooperation with a gay magazine, concluded that 80 percent have no problem with blessing gay unions outside church walls. In urban areas, priests and lay pastoral workers work in settings where free needles are administered to drug users, and condoms to prostitutes and their clients.

To be fair, such practices exist in virtually every Catholic community in the world, where pastors have to make judgment calls about the balance between clarity and compassion. What is unusual about the Dutch situation is how widespread, and how comparatively open, the gap between theory and reality seems to be.

How to explain it? NCR asked Dominican Fr. Theo Koster, pastor of the student parish at the Catholic University of Nijmegen and one of the priests who openly blesses gay unions.

“If the bishop wanted to stop me, he would have to come with arguments,” Koster replied.

But aren’t bishops, like authority figures everywhere, notorious for never letting a good argument get in their way?

Koster smiles, and said simply: “This is the Netherlands.”

By which he meant, in short, that this is a culture based on what the Dutch call gedogen. It translates as “tolerance,” and means that when society is divided on a question, lots of different approaches, even some officially illegal, are accepted as a way of working toward a solution.

It is part of the poldermodel, the emphasis on consensus that defines life here. In a densely populated country where divisions of religion and class have always been less important than the common fight against the sea, the only way to function is to live and let live. Important decisions must be the result of overwhelming agreement.

In such a climate, it is difficult for any leader to implement policies that do not enjoy strong popular support. The bishops’ line in many areas does not command such a consensus. Polls show, for example, that 85 percent of Dutch Roman Catholics support the new law on euthanasia, exactly one percentage point lower than the overall population.

The misfit between church rules and what strikes mainstream Dutch sentiment as common sense became clear when NCR interviewed L.G. Sinselmeijer, spokesperson for Cardinal Adrian Simonis, in Utrecht.

Early on, Sinselmeijer, a warm and avuncular man, served up the obligatory arguments against euthanasia, gay marriage and his country’s other social innovations. Yet, as the conversation unfolded, it became clear that Sinselmeijer’s outlook is fundamentally more Dutch than Roman.

For one thing, Sinselmeijer told NCR he believes a day will come when the Catholic church officially blesses gay unions. “The practice is developing in front of changing the law,” he said, expressing a typically Dutch understanding of how things work. “Our core business is to have an interest in all kinds of people, all kinds of lives.”

He also said it would be “inhuman” for a priest to deny the last rites to a patient going ahead with euthanasia.

“Everybody knows the church law, everybody knows it’s forbidden,” he said. “But then you stand with a young woman who is going to die, and you refuse to hold her hand until the end? It’s impossible.”

Sinselmeijer said it’s better that the bishops in Holland tolerate pastoral flexibility, even when it veers away from the rulebook.

“It’s better that we keep communicating, rather than saying, ‘This is allowed, that’s not,’ ” he said. “After all, the church is for the people, the people are not for the church.”

Sinselmeijer also defended the Dutch approach to social problems from critics who say legalization encourages immoral behavior. “That’s a wrong opinion,” he said. “Look around. How many people do you see in wooden shoes? It’s the same thing with the idea that everybody here uses drugs or goes to prostitutes.”

All in all, a remarkable line from the cardinal’s official mouthpiece.

For the record, Simonis told NCR during a separate interview that he believes pastoral practice diverges from official teaching less often than people think, and that when he learns of such behavior he always talks with the priest or pastoral worker involved. Yet even Simonis acknowledges that the bishops really don’t try to force wayward priests or laity into line.

“We have to be like parents,” he told me. “Forcing can be counterproductive. Here we try to follow the way of convincing.”

That’s gedogen for you.

The Dutch model

If one had to sum up the Dutch experience on social policy, two conclusions seem most striking, and perhaps most counterintuitive to Americans:

  • Legalizing something does not necessarily mean you will get more of it.
  • Toleration and approval are not the same thing.

On the strength of those two premises, Holland has been able to tackle social issues that bitterly divide other nations, and to do so in ways that command massive consensus.

Is this where the rest of the world is headed? Or are there too many peculiarities of history and culture to make the Dutch model exportable?

Many locals seem convinced that it’s only a matter of time.

Steemers, asked if she believes other nations will eventually adopt Dutch-style policies on euthanasia, drugs, etc., wastes no words: “If you’re sensible,” she said, grinning.

In some ways, Holland does represent a wider trend. Ten European nations now offer legal registration to non-married couples, in many cases including same-sex couples. Switzerland is experimenting with decriminalization of drugs. In the United States, Vermont has adopted a same-sex marriage statute, and Oregon has a law on euthanasia.

Yet the Netherlands is a small country with a relatively homogenous culture, and a history of religious conflict that has made tolerance a cardinal virtue. It is difficult to imagine that the consensus progressive social policies enjoy here could be easily replicated elsewhere -- certainly not in the United States, where organized religion remains a potent political and social force.

In fact, there is a possibility that the world may change Holland before Holland changes the world. As a member of the European Union, the Netherlands will be increasingly forced to comply with continent-wide norms on social questions. It’s unlikely that larger nations such as Italy and Spain, where the Catholic church still has considerable political muscle, will be willing to go along with innovations such as gay marriage and euthanasia.

Holland is thus likely, at least in the short run, to remain an intriguing social experiment rather than a bellwether. Which can exasperate, even anger, some Dutch, who seem able to tolerate everything but intolerance.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001